We have just witnessed another deadly two weeks in the Mediterranean. Capturing the attention of people in Malta and elsewhere is the death of Loujin, a four-year-old Syrian girl, who, in late August, left Lebanon with her mother and one-year-old sister, Mira.
They travelled on a boat with 58 other people and, after 10 days at sea, on September 4, began to send distress signals, reporting that they had been without food or water for two days. These were relayed by activists to the Maltese armed forces (AFM).
We know the AFM were aware of the case because, at this point, its coordinating centre ordered the merchant vessel Sti Solace to change course but did not order it to intervene.
The next day, another merchant vessel, the MV UNO, flying a Maltese flag, arrived on scene but left without intervening. That same day, the travellers reported water entering their boat. Yet, it would be another two days, not until September 7, before the freighter BBC Pearl rescued them and a Greek navy helicopter airlifted Loujin and her mother to a hospital in Crete. There, Loujin was pronounced dead.
The Maltese authorities ignored the many distress calls that these people sent over multiple days from within Malta’s search and rescue zone, as they have done in countless other cases this summer. Loujin’s last words were: “Mother, I’m thirsty.” Her death, as with others, was predictable and preventable.
In response to Loujin’s death, the AFM said they “diverted all available assets to the rescue and coordinated the rescue of the irregular migrants”. The details above reveal this to be patently untrue.
The discourse of ‘irregularity’ also undermines the right to claim asylum and the duty to rescue those in distress. Although there are disputes about disembarkation between Italy and Malta, the legal duty to rescue those in distress in our search and rescue zone is incontrovertible.
Yet, this is not the only case of distress where the Maltese government has failed to intervene. Since May, there have been over 25 cases of distress in the Maltese search and rescue area. In every instance, the travellers themselves, activists and concerned citizens have alerted the AFM. Despite Malta’s legal obligations and responsibility over its search and rescue zone, the response has overwhelmingly been to ignore these pleas, to delay rescue and to abandon people in distress at sea.
Over 20,000 people died in the Mediterranean between 2015 and 2021- Cetta Mainwaring
While some manage to arrive in Lampedusa, others are rescued by the Italian coastguard. In many cases, it is only NGO ships that have responded to people in distress, despite attempts by governments to criminalise them. In late August, the Maltese authorities even instructed a merchant vessel not to assist a boat in distress. Only in a handful of these cases did the AFM rescue people and disembark them in Malta and, then, only after delays that put lives at risk.
In one case, it appears that, once again, the Libyan coastguard was allowed to enter Malta’s search and rescue zone to intercept a boat and illegally return people to Libya. Returning people to Libya has been widely condemned as violating international law: Libya is not a safe place. Migrants regularly face torture, rape and death in the country. Earlier this year, Malta faced charges of supporting crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court due to such coordinated pushbacks of asylum seekers to Libya.
Inaction by the Maltese and other EU authorities when people are in distress at sea results in death. Over 1,000 people have lost their lives in the central Mediterranean this year.
Some of our political leaders claim that this ‘tough’ stance on migration will deter others from making the journey and arriving in Malta. Research and recent history debunk this claim. Deadly policies do not stop people from making such journeys. They make those journeys longer and more deadly. People still arrive in Malta and elsewhere in Europe. As a country, we, thus, have a choice: we can contribute to deaths at sea or uphold our moral and legal duty to rescue those in distress.
Along with adopting these deadly policies, the Maltese government has in recent years also regularly refused to communicate with civil society on the issue of migration, disengaging from dialogue and the democratic process. By doing this, they undermine our democracy and attempt to erase the reality of people moving and dying in our sea.
Loujin’s death is not an aberration. As a result of Maltese, EU and other member-state border practices, over 20,000 people died in the Mediterranean between 2015 and 2021.
Many others disappear without being counted: adults and children whose faces we do not know, whose deaths we do not grieve.
I add my voice to the many others who have already demanded that the Maltese government, our elected representatives, save people in distress at sea, regardless of where they come from and how much money they have.
It is time for all of us to stand up in solidarity against policies that kill.
Ċetta Mainwaring is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Glasgow.
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